The strangest presidential campaign is getting even stranger.
Donald Trump has in recent days raised the specter of massive voter fraud, saying that he could lose in Pennsylvania only if “in certain sections of the state they cheat.” And he’s proposed a remedy: volunteer poll watchers.
It’s a remedy that’s now being trumpeted by white supremacists and far-right conspiracy theorists.
The great irony here is that we have far more to fear from efforts to combat voter fraud, including the potential for an army of Trump poll watchers, than we do from any actual voter fraud.
The claim that the integrity of our electoral system is threatened by people voting more than once, by pretending to be someone else, or by voting when they are not eligible has been a favorite of right-wing politicians and pundits in recent years.
As is well known by now, there is virtually no evidence to support the claim. Nonetheless, 15 states this year will have new voter restrictions in place to combat the phantom problem, just in time for the presidential election. The total would have been 17, but federal judges this summer struck down North Carolina’s law – possibly the harshest in the country – and blocked another in North Dakota.
Courts also have ruled against all or parts of voter restriction laws in Texas, Wisconsin, and Kansas in recent months. But those remain largely in effect pending further court action.
Most of these laws include strict photo ID requirements. Some also curtail early voting or limit the way people can register. All are part of a wave of new voting measures, including many enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
While politicians who support the laws – and we’re talking Republicans here – say they’re needed to address voter fraud, they’re actually designed to suppress the votes of those who are likely to support their opponents. Experts say millions of people, largely the poor and people of color who have long been marginalized and who typically vote for Democrats, could be disenfranchised.
In North Carolina, a federal appeals court found that state lawmakers intentionally sought to keep African Americans from the ballot box – methodically analyzing voting data to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” The court also exposed the whole premise of the law as a charade, writing that it “impose[d] cures for problems that did not exist.”
A recent study by a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles proves the point. Examining every credible allegation of voter fraud from 2000 to 2014, he found a grand total of 31 potentially fraudulent votes out of more than 1 billion ballots cast.
But despite all evidence to the contrary, Trump seems convinced that something fishy is afoot. He’s urged his supporters to become poll watchers, to “make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.” Trump’s campaign also has set up a web page asking for volunteers to monitor polling places in an effort to “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election.”
Trump’s call to action is now being promoted by white supremacists on Stormfront, the world’s leading neo-Nazi website, something that’s not particularly surprising given how Trump has been embraced by the likes of David Duke. A Stormfront thread features a video by Alex Jones, America’s No. 1 radical-right conspiracy theorist, claiming that “[t]hey stole the election from [Bernie] Sanders and are planning it for Trump.”
That Jones would be in Trump’s corner is also not surprising. Trump has long traded in the same kinds of outlandish conspiracy theories that Jones hawks every day. Earlier this year, for example, Jones claimed President Obama is “hardcore Wahhabist; he is al-Qaeda.” Trump, of course, was among those who mainstreamed the claim that Obama was some sort of Manchurian candidate who wasn’t really born in this country.
Trump’s poll watchers aren’t going to uncover any voter fraud. What they’re more likely to do, given the violence we’ve seen at Trump rallies and the support he’s getting from avowed white supremacists, is intimidate people and suppress the vote.
And that, not surprisingly, is the same goal behind so many of the voter ID laws that have been enacted across the nation.